We were all leaning on our bikes in the Flog parking lot, having just completed a breathless loop around the golf course when Goggle said, “Wanky, you’re the biggest wheelsucker in the South Bay.”
This really hurt my feelings. On Lap 1 I had only sucked wheel the whole way until I got dropped.
On Lap 2 I had only sucked the lead-out goat’s wheel, then sucked Goggle’s wheel, then sucked Medium Banana’s wheel, and just as I was about to win the sprunt Ol’ Father Time, who had been sucking my wheel the whole way, dusted me like a mop. I thought there was honor among thieves, er, wheelsucks, but I guess not.
On Lap 3 I sucked Goggle’s wheel until he faded and then sat on Medium Banana the whole way and sneaked around him for the win, only being in the wind for those last few seconds. Except for that I had hardly done any wheelsucking.
The remaining three laps I sat in a lot more and sucked Goggle’s wheel all the way to about 1/4 of the way up La Cuesta, when he shed me pretty good, like a snake leaving behind its worthless old skin. Aside from all that, I hadn’t sucked wheel at all.
Back in the day
“Before I was old I didn’t used to suck wheel hardly at all,” I told Goggle.
“Like, what mythical era was this?”
“Back when I was, you know, 50 or 51. I never sucked wheel then.”
Goggle rolled his eyes. “I rode with you then. You were an inveterate wheelsucker. Less finesse than now, but I sure never saw you from the behind. You’d be stuck to whoever was in front of you like a piece of toilet paper on a lady’s high heel walking out of the shitter.”
“Maybe I did suck wheel once or twice, but when I was in my 40’s I was always on the front.”
Goggle hadn’t started riding a bike back then because he was only four, so he didn’t say anything but he looked pretty skeptical, and with good cause. The more I thought about it, the more I realized he was right. I was a pretty awful wheelsuck, and always had been. The only times I ever found the front were either by mistake or because I made the wrong move at the wrong time or I had quit or flatted or all of the above.
Wheelsucking for fun and profit
Of course my proclivity to hide has never correlated with success, but there aren’t any riders who’ve ever done well in the sport at the elite level who haven’t mastered the art of hiding for as long as possible. The strongest rider never wins, it’s always the smartest strong rider, or the strongest smart rider, and “smart” almost always means hiding until you absolutely can’t any more.
As G3 once told me after he had dropped me going up to the Domes, “This, Wanky, is a sport of conservation.” Apparently I hadn’t properly conserved.
The more I thought about it, the really good riders suck wheel all the suckin’ time. Destroyer is a fuggin’ ninja wheelsuck, until he isn’t and you are by yourself, going backwards as he vanishes on the horizon. Strava Jr. sucks wheel like a baby on a bottle until it’s Go Time, and then he’s usually alone. Same for G$. Even Daniel Holloway generally hides and hides and hides so that you forget he’s there, then suddenly he crosses the line first. Whazzup with thaaaat?
Eddy Merckx? He had a whole team of disposables who he would burn through until the time was ripe to hit the jets. Salbutafroome? A veritable wheel leech except for those last few kilometers, which, I’m told, are when it matters. Lance Drugstrong? Never hit the wind if he didn’t have to, and he made sure he hardly ever had to.
And please don’t tell me about Jacky Durand or those other epic conquerors who soloed from Kilometer 1. They’re the exception that proves the effectiveness of good pharmaceuticals, and they are outliers. Most of the time if you want to survive among your peers you had better scurry like a rat to the fattest, widest wheel you can find.
Oh, the shame of it all
Yet, it is shameful to cower and hide, abusing the person in front of you for his or her girth and superior wattage, only to dump him later or simply to tag along like a tick stuck in a damp, awkward crack, free riding the whole dang way. There is something noble about being the dumb loser who pushes the wind endlessly only to get swarmed at the end, the tough rider who shoulders the load while others make themselves tiny at the back.
“Go to the front!” we used to say in the South Bay, something that we said a lot more often than we did, except perhaps for Head Down James.
In fact, Destroyer once told me I was ruining an entire generation of racers by telling them to go to the front. “If you want to win, pounding the front is the last place you should be,” he said. “Towards the front, for sure, but grinding on the front? Dude, that’s how you lose races.”
“Yeah,” I’d say, “but we aren’t racing.”
“Wanky,” he said with a fatherly smile even though he was ten years younger, “you race like you train.”
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